During Google’s 2016 I/O keynote, CEO Sundar Pichai announced that 20% of queries carried out on his company’s mobile app and Android devices were conducted via voice.
With those figures in mind, and thanks to the rise in popularity of digital personal assistants such as Siri and Alexa, there’s a strong chance you’ll have carried out some form of voice search recently, too. It may have been to discover the best recipe for meatballs, find the lowest price for the new laptop you need to buy or to find out how to rank higher on Google. Whatever it was, you’ll simply have picked up your device and spoken to it in order to find the answer.
And that begs a question: will voice search change the way we search for things online?
We’re in the early stages of the transition from text to voice search – if it is indeed a transition, because even that is up for debate – and despite all the hype around voice search, we don’t think every website needs to change to avoid being left behind, we think it’s far more sensible to simply consider how our behaviour might impact the time we spend on Google.
Here are seven areas we think voice might change the way we search online:
1. It’ll become more convenient
Granted – picking up your smartphone and searching Google isn’t particularly laborious, but you do need to get your fingers working and open specific apps to do so. A huge advantage of voice search is that it’s immediately accessible. You may still need to press a button to invoke it, but with more devices featuring ‘listening’ capabilities, we need only utter the phrase “hey, Siri”, for example, and begin asking the question.
Convenience will always win out in tech, no matter how it’s delivered.
2. It’s not just for traditional web search
By ‘traditional web search’, we mean answers to questions, guides, or content that will help you get something done.
Voice search goes far further than that. For example, there’s something entirely natural about asking what the time is, how to spell a word or whether a rain coat will be required for the evening’s dog walk. And, while you can type any of those queries into Google, voice search is a brilliantly-intuitive alternative.
3. It’s rather nifty at context
Depending on the services you use online and whether or not you sign into platforms like Google, there’s a chance your devices know an awful lot about you.
For instance, if someone asks what your office address is and it doesn’t immediately spring to mind, you could quickly ask your assistant “what’s my office address?”, and it’ll pull out the exact answer for you from your address book. And, let’s not forget that voice search extends far beyond web queries. If you need to call your better half to arrange a lift home from the pub, for example, you can search for the relevant functionally on your smartphone by simply saying “call my husband”.
4. On-screen context
Although not widely available yet, expect to see more advances in context searching based on what you happen to be viewing on the screen. For example, if you’re viewing a Wikipedia entry about Harrison Ford, saying “show me photos of Harrison” will take you straight to an image search for that very actor.
As previously noted, voice search should be about delivering convenience, and reducing the number of words required to perform an internet search is a great way to go about just that.
This is another facet of voice search that is still in embryonic form, but one that is really exciting. As great as smartphone apps are, they often take you away from the web – preferring instead (understandably) to try and keep you in their world.
This can be frustrating if, for example, you’re using an app to look at potential locations for your next holiday but realise it doesn’t offer any rates for the hotels suggested. By being able to simply say “Google, show me the cheapest hotels in this location”, you’ll be immediately whisked to the appropriate internet search.
Although it only cuts out a relatively tiny amount of work on your behalf, the convenience (there’s that word again) will be most welcome.
6. Location-based queries
We’ve talked a lot about context in the last couple of points, and that’s because it’s a key component of voice search.
Location joins on-screen and app-based context as an element of voice search that might change the way we use the internet. Let’s say you’re in a location which is unfamiliar and find you need some petrol; the ability to simply ask your smartphone to take you to the nearest service station without having to press any buttons is both convenient and safe.
The web and its surrounding technology has long embraced location data as a way to provide tangible user benefits, and if you can rely on your smartphone to know exactly where you are and tailor its answers to match that location, days out and business trips should become far less stressful.
Voice already plays a big role in satellite navigation, but that isn’t the only digital realm in which location-awareness is a real boon for users.
7. Using “it” as a way to link searches
If you want to find out where the latest battle scene from Game of Thrones was filmed, then view photos from that area before finally viewing it on a map, you’d need to conduct three separate, very specific searches.
Although something we do regularly and without thought, it’s actually a rather cumbersome way of using Google. As voice search evolves, it will enable us to instead link searches of the aforementioned kind by simply using the word ‘it’.
The search above would therefore play-out in a manner similar to this:
“Where was the battle scene from episode five of Game of Thrones filmed?”
“Show me photos of it.”
“Show me it on a map.”
Hey presto – without any need for multiple searches containing the same words, you’ll have gained the exact answers you want and all by talking naturally to Google.
Despite how exciting the prospect of voice control on search engines is, there’s still an elephant in the room – and it’s quite a big one.
The coding behind personal assistants is improving all of the time, but speech recognition still proves problematic for some. Think about it; for every friend you have who relies constantly on Siri and can’t sing its praises loud enough, there’ll be another who claims it never understands them.
Talking to dumb devices is also inherently silly at times – particularly when carried out in public places. Inhibitions usually kick in whenever the opportunity arises to ask your smartphone a question and you’re stood near other people. It just looks a bit daft, sometimes and people don’t like to look daft.
So, the technology needs to continue improving and mass adoption will be required in order to remove the stigma attached to conducting conversations with tech in public, but as soon as we reach that point, voice search stands a fantastic chance of completely changing the way we use the internet.